LONDON — Britain could bring forward its next strategic defense and security review by as much as two years to reflect the likely impact of the Brexit negotiations, according to a top think tank here.
By late 2018, the implications of the upcoming negotiations with the European Union over Britain exiting the organization should have become much clearer, potentially prompting a new defense review, according to Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute.
Chalmers also joined others in voicing growing concerns that the deteriorating budgetary position of the Ministry of Defence could lead to equipment and manpower cuts without additional resources.
Under a policy introduced by the previous Conservative-led government, the strategic defense and security review, or SDSR, is usually held every five years, with the next one scheduled for 2020.
"The new government that takes office after the UK general election on 8 June will have to decide whether to stick to this timetable. One plausible outcome is that the launch of the next SDSR is brought forward to late 2018, by which time the implications of Brexit — economic and strategic — should have become much clearer," Chalmers said in a briefing paper scheduled for release May 14.
The Labour Party has already said that if it wins, it will hold a defense review after the elections. However, Labour looks unlikely to win, with the Conservatives seemingly on course for a landslide victory, according to polls.
Chalmers said there was also a "distinct possibility" the new government could hold a mini review of defense commitments this year to help keep defense finances on a "relatively stable footing" until the administration is ready to hold a cross-government spending review to take account of the shape of the Brexit deal.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, greets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg upon his arrival in Downing Street on May 10, 2017, in London, England. The prime minister on that day pledged that Britain would continue to hit the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent going forward.
Photo Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images
The mini review could help the government hold the ring until a full-scale SDSR is held in 2018 or 2019, he said.
There is a precedent for a mini defense review. In 2002, the then-Labour government, introduced what it termed as a "new chapter" into its earlier review in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
A spokesman for the MoD declined to comment on the possibility of a new SDSR, saying it was a political issue for the incoming government.
Some think a new defense review is an unnecessary distraction anyway.
An open letter to Prime Minister Theresa May — signed by 23 former senior British military officers, academics and decorated veterans and made public May 10 — said the next government should avoid the temptation to conduct another review.
"We urge you not to do this. SDSR 15, as is widely recognised, set the right path for our long term security. ... The solution is simple: fund the review properly and if this means a commitment to increase expenditure over the lifetime of the Parliament, then do it," wrote former Joint Forces Command chief Gen. Richard Barrons, former Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Lord Richards and others.
"[W]hile the policy [SDSR] remains in place, events have shown that the necessary funding is simply not there to give it substance. Responses by the MOD to questions about the adequacy of the defence budget raised by respected and informed commentators have been disingenuous, evading the issue by the relentless quoting of irrelevant financial statistics," the letter read.
"Funding SDSR 15 relied on unidentified and economically questionable savings. Government boasts of spending 2% of GDP on defense are widely criticised as an accounting deception. Most analysts now agree core defence expenditure for hard military power is well below 2%," the letter continued.
Chalmers, who was not a signatory to the letter, also added his voice to what is a growing chorus of concern over what many here believe is a chronically inadequate level of funding to meet equipment and personnel recruitment requirements established by the last SDSR in 2015.
"The ambitious plans for future military capability announced in the 2015 SDSR exceeded the limited resources that were made available for their fulfilment," the analyst said.
'Another defense black hole'
SDSR 2015 saw the Conservative government pledge a raft of new equipment for the military, including a fleet of P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, latest generation Apache attack helicopters and new General Atomics Certifiable Predator drones; extra money for special forces; a new eight-wheel drive mechanized infantry vehicle; a commitment to building four Dreadnought-class, Trident missile-carrying submarines; bringing forward the establishment of a Lockheed Martin F-35B squadron; and other purchases.
The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC)reported recently that MoD commitments generated by SDSR 2015 came to more than £24 billion (U.S. $31 billion).
The committee warned that the MoD's 10-year equipment plan "is at greater risk of becoming unaffordable than at any time since [the schemes] inception in 2012. Maintaining affordability is now heavily reliant on a highly ambitious, but still under-developed, program of efficiency savings from within the plan and the wider defence budget."
The Dreadnought-class of ballistic submarines for the British Royal Navy is now being built, according to the service. Successor was the name for the program, until the first boat was named in October 2016.
Photo Credit: British Royal Navy
The MoD plans to spend £178 billion on new equipment over the next 10 years. The total budget for defense last year came to £34.8 billion.
Some £10.7 billion set aside by the MoD to provide headroom to spend on equipment to meet emerging threats over the next 10 years has already been swallowed up to meet requirements stemming from the strategy review.
The government previously pledged a small annual increase above inflation in defense spending up to 2020 but told the armed forces they would have to find significant efficiencies and capability cuts to generate much of the funding required to acquire new equipment and capabilities.
The prime minister on May 10 pledged that Britain would continue to hit the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent going forward and also said the Conservatives would raise the defense budget by 0.5 percent above inflation until the end of the next Parliament in 2022.
The announcement effectively extends by two years a previous commitment given by the Conservative government to increase spending at the 0.5 percent for the five-year period up to 2020.
That may be nowhere near enough to resolve the funding problem. Industry executives and other sources here say the over-commitment in defense funding could be anything between £10 billion and £20 billion.
Howard Wheeldon, of Wheeldon Strategic, said a black hole is developing again in defense spending, but added it's likely not as big as some are estimating.
"One has only to look at how urgently needed-defense program[s] are being pushed back to know that the government is now very much on the back foot on defense. Notwithstanding what we should be spending on defense if we are to be able to properly meet all the existing threats and to carry out our full obligations — be these for national defense, protecting our dependent territories and our role in support of our NATO allies — then the defense budget is probably short of £4 billion," Wheeldon said.
"We also know that because of this another defense black hole is building up, meaning that the existing budget is significantly overspent," he said.
Some of the so-called black hole in funding has been caused by the growing cost of major new equipment plans. One analyst, who asked not to be named, pointed the finger at the £40 billion Dreadnought submarine as being one of the likely causes of the rising program costs partly responsible for the over-commitment.
Chalmers said failure to provide further funds will result in cuts to equipment and manpower.
Without additional resources, a new SDSR "can be expected to result in fewer people (especially if some allowance has to be made for increased pay), some cutbacks in the existing overheated equipment program, and perhaps increased investment in new technologies at the expense of older ones," he said.